Coming Up

News

Print
RSS

What It Is Worth: Trading Down

Posted Apr 1, 2012


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are currently slated to pick fifth in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft next month, and chances are that’s exactly when they’ll turn in their first index card.  Trades of top-10 selections aren’t unheard of – there were two in 2011 and the Redskins and Rams have already worked out a mega-deal for pick #2 this year – but more often than not teams stay put in those early slots.  A total of just nine top-10 picks have been moved in obvious trade-down deals over the last 10 drafts (2002-11).

 

Still, the possibility of the Buccaneers trading out of the fifth spot cannot be discounted, for two reasons.  First, the new collective bargaining agreement established a stricter cap on rookie salaries, making the prospect of trading up to the single-digit picks less financially risky.  Second, and more to the point, Tampa Bay General Manager Mark Dominik recently confirmed that he is willing to consider a trade out of #5.

 

Specifically, Dominik said the Buccaneers would listen if approached with the idea of trading down.  He does not envision a trade-up scenario because he is convinced the team will get a player it covets if it stays put at the fifth spot.

 

Washington’s recent trade up to the second spot – for which the Redskins gave up pick #6 plus two additional first-rounders and a second-rounder – has made it fairly obvious that quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III will be the first two players off the board.  Most draft analysts expect the next four picks to be some combination of USC tackle Matt Kalil, LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne, Alabama running back Trent Richardson and Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon, and it would be surprising if several of those players weren’t on the Bucs’ own short list.

 

There is obvious value, then, in shutting off the phones in the draft room at One Buccaneer Place on April 26 and sitting tight at #5.  However, from a purely hypothetical standpoint, a trade down is always an appealing option to a team coming off a difficult season, as is usually the case with any club holding a top-10 pick.  Trading down nets extra picks, sometimes rather valuable ones, and that allows more team needs to be addressed at one time.

 

Only Dominik, Head Coach Greg Schiano and their core decision-makers know if a trade down is likely for the Buccaneers on April 26, but there is plenty of time for speculation.  For instance, it would be interesting to know just what the Buccaneers could expect to get if they made such a move.

 

There are many factors that would determine the payoff in such a trade, the two most significant of which are: how far down the move would be and how high the higher pick is.  Last year, for instance, Atlanta had to send a first, a second and two fourths to Cleveland for the privilege of swapping #27 for #6 and getting in position to take wide receiver Julio Jones.  Just a short while later, Jacksonville was charged “just” a second-round pick by Washington to bump up from #16 to #10 to get quarterback Blaine Gabbert.  Obviously, it costs a lot more to move up 21 spots than it does to jump six, and a sixth-overall selection is more valuable than a 10th-overall.

 

One could always choose to speculate about trade-down payoffs by consulting the famous “draft value chart,” first developed by Jimmie Johnson’s Cowboys, in this situation.  This chart assigns a numerical value to each pick in the draft, descending from 3,000 points for the first overall selection (in the original Cowboys chart) to a mere 0.55 points for the 253rd pick in Round Seven (this year’s final pick).  The Cowboys developed the chart in order to get a feel for which teams most often overpaid as draft partners, based on deals they had made in the past.  Many teams around the league now use some version of this chart, though they have likely tweaked them to suit their own thinking in the intervening years.

 

Some have called the original chart into question in recent years, most notably the authors of “Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports Are Played and Games Are Won.”  Actually, Scorecasting co-authors Tobias J. Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim give the Cowboys credit for creating a valuable tool but point out that it was originally developed to reflect what teams were willing to pay in trades, not what they should be paying.  As they explained in a Q&A on Freakonomics.com a little over a year ago, teams (and analysts) that now use the same chart to determine the value of the picks in each side of a trade offer may very well be overvaluing high picks.  Obviously, with the statistical-analysis explosion that began in baseball and has now reached deep into other sports, plenty of bright minds have taken up the gauntlet of trying to produce what they consider a more realistic draft value chart, such as this member of the Harvard College Sports Analysis Collective.

 

Of course, an NFL team’s executives could arm themselves with what they believed was a superior draft value chart but it might not help much in hurried draft-day negotiations if the other team is trying to stick to the old chart.  If most NFL teams are using charts that are at least roughly similar, and staying true to them whenever possible, we can gain a rough idea of what the Bucs might expect to get in various trade-down scenarios.

 

Using that original Cowboys chart that starts with a 3,000-point #1 pick, the Buccaneers are holding a #5 pick that is worth 1,700 points.  If they were to trade down to #10, they would be acquiring a pick worth 1,300 points.  The difference, 400 points, is the value of the 50th pick, which is a little past halfway through the second round.  So, therefore, if one adheres to this chart, the Bucs should ask for a second-round pick to move from #5 to #10, and additional compensation in one direction or the other might be added if the second-round pick is particularly high or low in the round.

 

Here’s a few other values the chart kicks out for different levels of trading down from #5:

 

Pick #1

Value

Pick #2

Value

Diff.

Pick Value

#5

1,700

#15

1,050

650

#29 overall

#5

1,700

#20

850

850

#20 overall

#5

1,700

#25

720

980

#16 overall

 

Those quick examples make it clear why some believe the original arbitrary values in the Cowboys’ chart descend too quickly from the top.  To move up from #20 to #5, a team needs to give up another pick as valuable as the one they’re trading away from.  In other words, this is saying that the player chosen with the fifth overall pick is expected to be as valuable as two of the players a team could get at number 20.  Practically speaking, it’s not difficult to find examples that make that hard to swallow.  Here are the players taken fifth and 20th overall in the last 10 drafts:

 

Draft

#5 Pick

#20 Pick

2011

CB Patrick Peterson

DE Adrian Clayborn

2010

S Eric Berry

CB Kareem Jackson

2009

QB Mark Sanchez

TE Brandon Pettigrew

2008

DT Glenn Dorsey

CB Aqib Talib

2007

T Levi Brown

CB Aaron Ross

2006

LB A.J. Hawk

DE Tamba Hali

2005

RB Cadillac Williams

DT Marcus Spears

2004

S Sean Taylor

DE Kenechi Udeze

2003

CB Terence Newman

T George Foster

2002

CB Quentin Jammer

WR Javon Walker

 

On balance, it’s probably fair to say that the majority of the players in the first column have fared better than their partners in the second column, though it’s probably too early to say for those in the last two or three years.  But would the Kansas City Chiefs trade two Tamba Halis for one A.J. Hawk?  Would the Bucs trade two Aqib Talibs for one Glenn Dorsey?

 

Of course, considering these chart values, or some approximations of them, are still in use by NFL teams, those examples also show why trades from the top 10 down to the bottom half of the first round are quite rare and, when they do occur, are usually blockbusters.

 

The aforementioned Atlanta-Cleveland trade last year is a good example.  To make the extraordinary jump of 21 spots in the first round, the Falcons needed to close a chart-value gap of 1,020 points.  In addition to the exchanged picks, the Falcons gave up #59 in the second round (310 points), #124 in the fourth round (48) plus first and fourth-round picks in this year’s draft.  The second half of that deal is a little harder to evaluate for two reasons: 1) Many believe a pick in a future draft is less valuable by some percentage than one in the current draft; and 2) Neither team knew exactly where those 2012 picks would fall in the draft order when they were traded.

 

As it turns out, those two picks are numbers 22 and 118.  If we accept current-year values for those two picks from the Cowboys chart, we get 780 and 58 points.  The four picks Atlanta gave to Cleveland in addition to the two swapped in the first round add up to 1,196 points.  All told, that’s pretty close to the 1,020-point gap for the original move up, and if one adheres to the chart, helps to explain why Atlanta had to pay so much for the privilege.  Of course, the more salient consideration is if Jones – or any one specific player – is worth that much of a draft-day investment.  The Falcons clearly thought so, and probably still do after Jones’ fine rookie season.  It’s not often, however, that a team talks itself into such an enormous deal, and Atlanta’s move was met with some pretty strong reactions both for and against it.


In fact, if we set aside the draft value chart for now and examine instead what trades of this variety have actually occurred, we don’t find many like the Falcons-Browns swap.

 

As mentioned above, there have been nine instances in the past 10 drafts (2002-11) of teams trading down from a top-10 picks.  (This is excluding other sorts of deals, such as the trade of a top-10 pick for a specific player.)  The average number of picks that the team trading down has moved is 9.2 and only two of the trades have involved a move of more than a dozen spots.  In addition to the Julio Jones trade, the Jacksonville Jaguars swapped #26 to Baltimore for #8 in 2008 and selected defensive end Derrick Harvey.  The Colts took what seems like a surprisingly low haul of two thirds and a fourth, then later traded back up eight spots in order to draft QB Joe Flacco.

 

If nine picks is the average trade down for a team holding a top-10 pick, then the 2003 exchange between the Chicago Bears and the New York Jets is a very representative example.  In order to move up from #13 to #4 and draft DT Dewayne Robertson, the Jets gave the Bears their other first-rounder (#22 overall) and a fourth-round pick.  One might expect, then, if the Buccaneers are willing to move from #5 down to the middle of the first round they would seek another first-round pick, or something equivalent.  Not every potential trade partner is going to own two first-round picks, but a pair of second-rounders (potentially even one in 2013) could return the same value.

 

Perhaps a trade down for the Buccaneers could involve a move of just a few spots, should one of the teams in the next group of five (St. Louis, Jacksonville, Miami, Carolina and Buffalo) be particularly enamored of, say, Blackmon.  What might Tampa Bay expect to get in such a deal?  Here are a few examples from the last 10 years:

 

  • In 2008, New Orleans traded with New England to move from #10 to #7 and draft defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis.  They gave up a third-round pick and sent back a 5th-rounder to make it happen.
  • In 2004, Cleveland was sitting at #7 and was clearly worried that Detroit would trade #6 to another team that coveted tight end Kellen Winslow.  Cleveland made the move instead, giving up a second-round pick for the move of one spot and the clear path to drafting Winslow.
  • In 2002, Kansas City wanted DT Ryan Sims and traded up from #8 to #6, the Cowboys’ spot, to get him.  They gave Dallas third and sixth-round picks.

 

The middle trade is notable.  The Saints and Chiefs gave up similar packages for moves of three and two spots, respectively, but the Browns gave up a more valuable asset just to swap spots with the team in front of them.  That suggests that the Lions had more than one serious suitor for that #6 pick…or that, at least, they convinced the Browns they did.  That threat of another team swooping in for your player is a more subtle – but potentially very impactful – determinant in how much value can be squeezed out of a trade down.

 

Also significant for the Bucs, if they are hopeful of trading down, is the specific positions of the players that might be coveted at #5.  From 2002-2011, and with this year’s Washington-St. Louis trade thrown in, there were 46 instances of obvious trade-downs in the first round.  In two of those cases, the team trading up subsequently traded up again.  That leaves 44 picks by teams after they traded up in the first round in the last decade (plus this year), and the position targeted most frequently by far was quarterback.  Nine of the 44 players taken by the trading-up teams were QBs (or will be if the Redskins take Griffin or Luck, as expected).  Thus it would be helpful for the Buccaneers – who presumably are not in the market for a signal-caller – if another quarterback emerged as a hot prospect behind Luck and Griffin.  The most obvious prospect is Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill, who reportedly had a strong workout in his school’s pro day on Thursday.

 

Blackmon, too, could be a fine chip for the Buccaneers if he’s available at #5, assuming he isn’t the player Tampa Bay has its heart set on.  After quarterback, receiver has been the most targeted position – six times – of teams trading up in the last decade.

 

Or perhaps the Buccaneers do have their sights set on Blackmon, or Richardson or Claiborne or another specific player they expect to be available at #5.  If so, this whole discussion may be moot.  Again, teams trade out of top 10 picks relatively infrequently, and the new rookie cap makes those picks even more valuable, from a team-building and salary-cap-saving perspective.  But if the team is willing, and a team or two comes calling in the early going of this year’s draft, Tampa Bay could benefit in a small but significant way with a short move down.  It could even hit the draft-pick jackpot with a big leap downward, as the Cleveland Browns did a year ago.  It’s a possibility that could prove quite hard to pass up.

Recent Articles